Racism Matters: A Note on Madison Bumgarner

I’ve been pulling my hair out trying to write something on the Kaepernick Kontroversy, which has graciously extended itself into its fourth week for me without any reward. I’ll try to have that up this week. For now, though, I have an opportunity to write something both pithy and timely for once, so here I go.

Madison Bumgarner got himself in trouble again tonight. For those who don’t know, the Giants pitcher has a history of getting angry at opposing players for all kinds of trivial, even indiscernible reasons. He’s the kind of player known as a “red-ass,” one who treats every game event with adolescent intensity and generally makes himself unpleasant to be around.

However, in the last couple of years, a number of people have suggested a pattern: a lot of the players Bumgarner has gotten in yelling matches with have been Black and/or Caribbean, a pattern laid out by Bill Baer in a post from May of last year. Probably unwisely in the context of that discussion, Baer left off a number of incidents that Bumgarner has had with white players—Ian Kinsler, Troy Tulowitzki, Matt Holliday, Wil Myers, even the umpire Joe West. (I believe some of these happened since Bill’s post last year; I haven’t checked the dates.) All in all, there’s plenty of material for those who want to argue that Bumgarner (who is from the South) is racist, and plenty for those who want to argue that he’s just an equal-opportunity asshole. This is the kind of thing—a thorny question on a controversial topic, seen through the eyes of sports partisanship—that is just about guaranteed to lead to mature and thoughtful discussion online.

So during tonight’s game, when he started yelling at Yasiel Puig after they had a staredown, instigating their third such encounter, the Internet had a field day:

I would like to use my considerable clout in the world of sports commentary to suggest that we should not make jokes of this kind.

Here’s my thing: racism matters. That means, when it happens, it should be called out, and that includes not only incidents that are overtly racist (a player uses a racial slur) but also those that may fit racist patterns (a player seems to have a predilection for seeking conflict with Black or Latino players). A lot of sports tropes, especially in baseball, are racially charged—everything from “natural athlete” to “showboat” to “plays the game the right way”—and they should be identified as such when they occur in word or deed, even though a lot of people, earnestly or disingenuously, will claim not to know what we’re talking about.

However, the other implication of “racism matters” is that we should treat accusations of racism seriously. If we’re going to accuse someone of racism, we should commit to it, not play it for laughs. A sentiment you read a lot online—about this, about all kinds of things—is, “Jeez, people get so mad when you call something racist.” Well, being racist or not is a big deal! It should evoke strong feelings! You cannot simultaneously send the message that racism is a serious problem, possibly our society’s most serious problem, and that calling someone a white supremacist is the kind of roll-off-your-back humor that only a pedant would get mad about. This should not just be grist for the meme mill.

It also shouldn’t be a matter of team partisanship. Yes, the people who are most likely to defend Bumgarner are Giants fans like me; anecdotally, the people who are most likely to jump on the idea that he’s a racist are Dodgers fans. This is a bad state of affairs. It’s one thing for us to judge steroids, or diving for a foul, or whatever, based on what uniform the perpetrator is wearing; I’m not in love with that inconsistency either, but it’s unavoidable (I’m just as guilty as anyone) and inconsequential. But reducing racial animus to just one more needle to wield against opposing teams and their fans—”STERRR-OIDS!” “RAAAAA-CIST!”—dilutes it absurdly, and insults the efforts of those who actually work to fight it.

And finally, because accusations of racism are consequential, we should care about getting them right. I don’t know if the list of white folks Bumgarner’s been mad at is long enough to defuse the idea that he’s a racist. I personally think, given the seriousness of the charge, that we should be good sabermetricians and treat this as a case of small sample size, but I also recognize that my Giants fandom inclines me to say that anyway. However, what I do strongly believe is that that list of white players, pedantic though may seem, is vital to include in this discussion, if it’s a discussion we’re going to have, because we should want to know whether or not Bumgarner really is racist. Yet when people question the premise, they just come across as desperate apologists, and are treated as such:

Baumann’s reaction to the Giants fans he’s talking about is absolutely understandable: people who defend others—particularly celebrities they admire—against racism or sexism or other isms really are being disingenuous a lot of the time, including many Giants fans in this discussion, so it’s fair that people would be leery of such defenses. Yet they’re a necessary evil of having this conversation in the first place. The one-way ratchet, where calling someone racist is fair game but defending someone against a charge of racism is not, may seem to redress the very real power disparity between those who enforce or tolerate white supremacy (who have lots of power), and those who fight it (who have very little). In fact, it does the opposite. It sends the message that these claims won’t stand up to scrutiny—that, again, they are not being made seriously. The message is, “If you don’t think there’s anything racist going on, I’m certainly not going to try and convince you otherwise.” This doesn’t persuade anyone; on the contrary, it inoculates them against persuasion. Sure, almost no one gets persuaded online anyway, but isn’t it worth making the attempt, if for no other reason than to prove that you take the subject seriously?

As I’ve suggested earlier, while I’m thrilled that the Internet has allowed progressive sports fans and commentators to find each other, that clannishness does present a serious risk of self-satisfaction. Let’s define ourselves, not just by our willingness to criticize racism in the sports we watch, but by our willingness to care about it—enough to debate and discuss it, enough to feel it. Joking about racism is a way of protecting ourselves from actually having to face the discussion squarely. Let’s deny ourselves that comfort.

Image credit: NLCS 8 by csulb gal is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson

A couple preliminary notes about Muhammad Ali’s legacy before I get to my topic:

1. It seems indisputable that almost anyone you might care to name on the list of the most important athletes in history is bound to be nonwhite. A white athlete, devoid of larger symbolism, has very little opportunity to influence anything outside the athletic arena; Babe Ruth had a tremendous impact on the game of baseball, and even on sporting culture generally, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a way he changed the world in the manner of a Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, or Muhammad Ali. The only exception I can think of is Billie Jean King, but her impact seems a bit more complicated to me: while she surely made a difference in the public perception of women athletes and women in general, we’ve made little progress on the cause she was most directly fighting for—women’s sports having an equal seat at the table with men’s sports—and her accomplishment is soured somewhat by the revelation that Bobby Riggs may have thrown the match.

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Mizzou and the Revolt of the Amateurs

Let me start with a confession: I never heard about the racist incidents at the University of Missouri until its football team threatened to strike unless the university president resigned. Some of the blame for my ignorance is due to me for complacently living in my white coastal bubble, and some to the national media for not treating, say, a swastika made of human feces at a major state university as worthy of coverage. However you divvy up the blame, though, I’m confident I’m not alone in only having become aware of the story once the team got involved. The football players didn’t show any more courage than Jonathan Butler, the student who threatened to starve himself to death unless President Wolfe resigned, but they certainly showed more ability to attract media attention. And, of course, more ability to achieve the protest’s aims. On Sunday, President Wolfe was saying he had no intention of resigning. Early on Monday, he was gone, along with the campus chancellor, who will resign at the end of the year.

As several writers have noted, this is a watershed moment in the empowerment of college athletes: in effect, the football team deposed two major university administrators. The Mizzou strike has generally been cheered among progressive writers: football players, so often assumed to be aloof from the functioning of the college, took a bold professional risk to speak up for their fellow black students, who are under-represented on campus but over-represented on the football team. It’s a sign of solidarity and political consciousness that would excite just about anyone on the left. The progressive columnist Kevin Drum, however, was wary of celebrating, given what the incident says about the influence that athletics wields. “Are we really happy that college football players apparently have this much power?” he asked.

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